The Oregon Trail
- Amy Puetz Contributing Writer
- 2007 5 May
Since the early days of America’s history, brave pioneers had been instrumental in opening up new land and reclaiming it from the wilderness. This same spirit of adventure had been steadily moving people west since the days of the Pilgrims, but by the mid-1800’s, the farmers had reached the western plains which they thought were not suitable for agriculture. These people heard that across the prairie and over rugged mountains was a land that was fertile. Some stories told about Oregon were true, but others were so exaggerated that it is amazing to think that people believed them; it seemed rather like a modern day Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey.
Long before the pioneers reached Oregon, industrious white men saw the territory was rich with fur pelts. During the early 1800’s, John Jacob Astor planned to set up trading posts in the vast western land and build a large settlement along the Columbia River where his company could trap and trade for furs. Soon a race began between Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and the British Hudson Bay Company to be the first to establish a fort in Oregon. Triumphantly the Americans arrived in Oregon aboard the Tonquin in 1811, and set up a post they dubbed Fort Astoria in honor of their founder. These early mountain men paved the way for future settlements by Americans. Robert Stuart, one of Astor’s partners, discovered a route over the Rocky Mountains in October of 1812, when he crossed the Great Divide at South Pass in present day Wyoming. This discovery seemed insignificant at the time, but soon became valuable as the easiest pass through the Rocky Mountains.
As reports of Oregon reached the east, missionaries became interested in serving there. A story was widely circulated in the east about four Indians who traveled from Oregon to St. Louis to seek the White Man’s Book of Heaven. Although some claim that the story was fictional, it helped missionaries to see Oregon as a spiritually hungry place and they began setting up missions in the new territory. In 1836, Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, Reverend Henry Spalding, and his wife Eliza, left the comforts of the east to minister in Oregon. Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to cross the Continental Divide. Their journey proved that women, and thus whole families, could travel overland to Oregon.
An economic depression that took place in the late 1830’s, called the Panic of 1837, led countless emigrants to seek new land in Oregon. Many people longed for a fresh start and the vivid tales of Oregon were just what their itching ears wanted to hear. Oregon promised fertile soil and a pleasant climate. During the following years a few pioneers reached this alleged Promised Land, but in 1843, the Great Migration began. A wagon train with 1,000 emigrants and 120 wagons headed west. Thus begins the history of the Oregon Trail, which vibrantly lives as one of the greatest chapters in American history.
The road to Oregon was hard, long, and dangerous. Attempting to cross over 2,000 miles of seemingly endless prairies, perilous rivers, and rugged mountains was not for the faint hearted. Another daunting fear was the possibility of attacks by Native Americans. In the early years of the Trail, Indians were very helpful to emigrants; they served as guides and willingly traded supplies with the pioneers. As time passed, however, the relationship between the Indians and pioneers deteriorated, and conflicts became more frequent. Most of the deaths on the trail, however, were caused by accidents or diseases, such as dysentery, cholera, and scurvy. Every day they faced situations that could be fatal--river crossings, poisonous snakes, unsanitary water, attacks from wild animals, and storms. Approximately 300,000 people traveled on the Oregon Trail from 1840–1860, and it is estimated that 34,000 emigrants perished.
Pioneers who wished to travel to Oregon journeyed from their homes in the east to jump-off points along the Oregon Trail. The most well known was Independence, Missouri. During the spring the city would be bustling with the noises of wagon trains preparing to start their six-month journey. Meticulously, families loaded their sturdy Conestoga wagons with food, tools, supplies, and household necessities. Each family would need about $1,000 to buy provisions. To keep off the sun and weather the wagons were covered with strong white canvases that reminded people of ships, and the wagons were nicknamed prairie schooners. When choosing animals to pull the wagons, most pioneers went with oxen as they were strong, sturdy, good-tempered (unlike donkeys), and could live off the land.
Once their provisions were purchased and the wagons loaded, the eager pioneers started their tedious journey, usually in April or May. In the beginning everything seemed like a fantastic adventure, but it soon became a monotonous routine. At 4:00 o’clock in the morning, the watchman fired his rifle to announce a new day. While the men yoked the oxen and reloaded the wagons, the women-folk lit fires and cooked their breakfast of coffee, bacon, and johnnycakes. On the prairie, trees were scarce and they used buffalo chips (dried buffalo droppings) in place of firewood. At 7:00 in the morning the pilot or wagon master blew a trumpet or bugle to get the wagons started. If a wagon was slow to get in their assigned position they had to ride at the back of the wagon train and would soon be covered with dust. Each day the wagon in front was changed so every family had a chance to be free from the dust of the other wagons. At noon they stopped for the midday meal which consisted of leftovers from breakfast. During nooning, the animals were given a much needed hour’s rest. Continuing their journey, they stopped at 6:00 o’clock in the evening to make camp. The wagons were placed in a circle and attached together using the oxen’s chains. The area inside the circle was used as the campground and also gave the pioneers protection. Soon a crackling fire was blazing and a dinner of rice and beans or bacon, bread, and occasionally a pie, was prepared. By 9:00 a quiet settled over the weary wagon train. As they slipped into an exhausted slumber, the fatigues of the day disappeared and they would be refreshed when morning came. Each day was much like the last.
The early pioneers relied on landmarks to determine their progress and assure them they were on the right track. An average of 12–15 miles were traveled each day. Whenever possible, they followed major rivers such as the North Platte, Sweetwater, Snake, and Columbia. This allowed them to have a constant water supply, but when it was impossible to follow a river they suffered greatly from thirst. Some major landmarks along the Trail included Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Register Cliff, Independence Rock, South Pass, Soda Springs, and Fort Hall. Once the pioneers reached their Promised Land, the Willamette Valley, they began the grueling work of cutting logs to make shelters for themselves and their animals before winter set in.
The men, women, and children who traveled the Oregon Trail probably never realized that their sacrifices and hardships would be remembered almost two centuries later. In a harsh and vast wilderness they marked out a trail that was followed by thousands of other enterprising pioneers. Soon the number of Americans living in Oregon outnumbered the British. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 set the Canadian boarder at the 49th parallel thus making Oregon a U.S. territory. In 1859, Oregon joined the Union as the thirty-third state. The daring pioneers who settled in Oregon had found their Promised Land, a place of fertile soil with delightful surroundings. Through their bravery and perseverance they carved a home out of the wilderness.
Amy Puetz, a homeschool graduate, loves history, sewing, and working as a computer graphic artist for her company A to Z Designs. She is also the author of the exciting book Costumes with Character. Visit her website at www.AmyPuetz.com. She makes her home in Wright, Wyoming.